Seeing Citizen Kane for the first time, and can Kane persist?
I began reading about film as a subject while in Greece, where I lived as a child. With only the local cinema (which generally showed movies out of doors on the theater roof, a large screen under the stars) and two Greek TV stations (Yened and ERT were the only channels that came in clearly in Athens) showed a revolving schedule of black and white American, French and Italian movies with Greek subtitles or dubbing. I had very few resources to read about films that were not the current crop of releases covered in magazines, but even then the name Citizen Kane cropped up regularly as a legendary movie of superior Hollywood quality.
A few years later, I was attending high school in the Washington DC suburbs, and during a lunch break I discovered an impromptu screening of Citizen Kane happening in the school's gymnastics room, which was just large enough to be an ad hoc movie theatre. So, laid out on gym mats on the floor leaning against a vinyl covered vaulting bar I excitedly got to view the film which dominated so much Hollywood movie lore that I had only read about in my admittedly rather brief life span.
Because I had previously absorbed so many monster movies from the 1930s, seeing Citizen Kane was not a dramatically different experience. The gothic sense of dread (and art direction) which surrounds the ongoing isolation and personality collapse of the title character wasn't that different than seeing Colin Clive going off the rails in Frankenstein.
The difference was in the script writing and in how director (and star, and co-writer) Orson Welles manipulated the film's time-line and the individual stories provided by the various associates of Mr. Kane. Like a puzzle coming together, with a mystery in the center like a Raymond Chandler story (what's "rosebud"?) Citizen Kane contains levels of meaning and snatches of melodrama that the script keeps in separate cells (the tales told about Kane by his former employees, friends and wives) but brought together by a no-nonsense, tenacious newspaper reporter who is patching together an overview of the life of the deceased tycoon. This featured Welles beneath increasingly thickening layers of makeup.
Splayed out on the floor watching the movie while distracted students exited beneath the screen (it was being projected on the cinder block wall above the entrance doors), and while other kids came in to see what the racket was about, I studied the movie and tried to ignore the noise from the restless crowd. They seemed to be confused by Citizen Kane: was this a school assignment or was this just random lunch-time entertainment?
What I perceived the story to be after witnessing the bubbling paint on the burning Rosebud inside the furnace at stately Xanadu and then the final end credits, was that Citizen Kane was a tragic suicide tale, and with a young person's optimism, I viewed the progression of errors by Kane as he lost his humanity (and friends) while enlarging his ego (and fortune) as something he could have stopped at any step along the way. Didn't he know any better?
Being considerably older now, my appreciation of Citizen Kane hasn't changed that much. I am better acquainted with how human personalities, once set in motion toward destructive goals, are hard to swing to a different course, much like the omnivorous appetites of Mr. Kane. I am also better aware of how a scriptwriter spins a story and will make his story points using the characters as examples of the morality they believe is self-evident within Hollywood reality (or, if the script writer doesn't really believe in it, will nonetheless move forward creating the story like a used car salesmen who, while making a sale at least, is thoroughly convinced what he is selling is a wonderful automobile, and not a lemon).
Seeing Citizen Kane today, I am prompted by new questions about how the film sits atop lists of "the greatest movies ever made" and whether it can stay there indefinitely.
First of all, how effective is Welles' story now that so many elements of what is depicted on the screen has slid into antiquity (newspapermen feverishly looking for verification on facts and publishing them on paper) and the tragic background of Kane's childhood (which, tragic in the real sense of life, isn't that unique in the 21st century). Can the future movie scholar being born now in the 21st century, growing up surrounded by streaming services, internet news, and a wholly different world of problems still respond to an old black and white film with people wearing different clothes, driving different cars (or horse-drawn buggies, like parts of Kane), and saying things to each other using archaic 1941 slang?
I realize that Kane's difficulties are the same ones for any era of cinema that has slid into a foggy past, but I am reminded that here we are, still taking time to screen George Melie's movies from before 1900. As an item of scholarship, Citizen Kane is not in doubt. But, can Welles' RKO magnum opus keep from moving from Greatest Movie Ever Made down to Outstanding Example of 20th Century Film-Making?
Can Citizen Kane persist?
Can Citizen Kane persist? I think it depends upon the religious devotion of future movie critics to established idols, and being that moviedom is a wing of the arts, there is that chance. Citizen Kane may permanently battle it's way to top future lists after weathering fashions and political trends that come and go, after all Shakespeare, Sophocles, and how many other distant names of creativity still are heralded (Da Vinci, Michelangelo, etc). Perhaps Citizen Kane's fundamental qualities will buoy it afloat amid the usual changes in the fashions of the arts. But here lies perhaps the biggest problem for why Kane may yet be dethroned: Orson Welles' later film output, however highly regarded, may be what undermines Kane. After all, nearly everyone knows the names of past creative giants (the afore mentioned Shakespeare, Michelangelo, etc.) but this is based on a lifetime of quality work connected with those names. Does Orson Welles' have that? I like Welles' other films quite a bit, but that is a very challenging question.
So, I finally got to see the great Citizen Kane and I put it into my list of favorite films (a list I kept in a notebook, recording every film I saw along with the year it was made and with my personal rating). Kane had my highest rating then, as it does now, though it simply doesn't sit perfectly inside my favorites' list, which is inundated with "special cases" for movies I am well aware are not of the highest quality but all the same are a favorite for their entertainment or "enjoyment" factor*.
Put another way, Citizen Kane isn't a warm film. Again, it has a lot in common with classic horror films, movies colder than melodrama and concerned with human frailty on a cosmic scale, with mad humans trespassing into places that clearly any fool with a fear of God would not go, such as Mr. Kane, who, using his wealth, charm and willpower, seeks to control each person who is dear to his heart as if they were the objects in his mammoth doll house. In this way, Kane makes me think it is a more emotional (and more intelligent) version of Doctor Cyclops from 1940, where a mad scientist shrinks humans down and controls them (unlike Mr. Kane who is motivated partially by an emotional hole in his soul, Dr. Cyclops is just crazy).
Welles' Kane is sometimes lauded because it makes an attack on consumerism (and the character Kane in the film takes this to a superhuman, egomaniac level) and Welles' brilliantly makes this clear with a scene showing the gargantuan collection of art, antiques and "stuff" Kane had accumulated over a lifetime, and the scope of the piled up mess is like the gargantuan wounded soldier scene in Gone with the Wind where the camera views a seemingly endless row of human debris. It also prompts an answer to why Kane couldn't find that darn sled, it would be difficult to find anything amid all that affluence. In the end we have the pointless buying spree turning to ash, including Rosebud. A simpler ending to a parable would be hard to find.
Citizen Kane at Seventy - 2011
The Atlantic Magazine online has an article [May 3, 2011] by D. B. Grady on the importance and longevity of Orson Welle's first film.
"The contract that gave birth to Citizen Kane was an unthinkable gamble by RKO, but the studio had good reason to bet on Orson Welles. At 20, he lorded over Broadway, first with Voodoo Macbeth, a reworking of the "Scottish play" set in the Caribbean and starring an all-African American cast. He followed triumphant reviews by establishing the Mercury Theatre and rewriting Julius Caesar, setting it in Mussolini's Italy. The curtain rose to universal acclaim. In a 1938 cover story, Time magazine wrote of Welles, "If the career of the Mercury Theatre, which next week will be six months old, seems amazing, the career of Orson Welles, who this week is 23, is no less so. Were Welles's 23 years set forth in fiction form, any self-respecting critic would damn the story as too implausible for serious consideration."
Usually listed in critics top ten lists for best (or most influential) films in Hollywood history, Citizen Kane has some detractors who question it's fame and quality. The plot holes have been pointed out and examined, the heavy-gothic tone transported to modern biography and then mixed with a documentary approach has been knocked for it's melodramatics; nonetheless the film endures as "America's Greatest FIlm" and continually stirs the pot on what is (or is not) a 'great' Hollywood movie.
Original page May 2011 | July 2012 | Updated Sept 2018
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From former screen legends who have faded into obscurity to new revelations about the biggest movie stars, Valderrama unearths the most fascinating little-known tales from the birth of Hollywood through its Golden Age.
Winner of the 2020 Peter C. Rollins Book Award
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Named a 2019 Richard Wall Memorial Award Finalist by the Theatre Library Association